Here’s one sentiment I can say I don’t share: missing the pop monoculture. According to Toure at Salon.com, our culture is “poorer” today because we don’t have gigantic acts like Michael Jackson and Prince anymore, that everybody can gather around to and collectively love. This goes hand in hand with the decline of big TV and radio stations that everybody used to watch. There are no “massive music moments” anymore when, for instance, an album becomes a big hit. There is no real shared pop culture anymore with larger-than-life figures.
Well, personally, I have no longing at all to go back to that time. As a millennial, I’m old enough to remember the time when you only had one or two music stations on TV; a couple of radio stations; and the charts that were based on album sales. The time before The Internet, when you were dependent on this small set of big media to enjoy pre-selected pop music. Nowadays, I almost never watch TV or listen to the radio anymore, and why would I? It means listening to crappy music catered for the masses. I have the Internet.
What the author at Salon calls the “balkanization” of pop culture I totally applaud: the Internet has allowed people to get exposed to more music than ever before, and that is of great value. In fact, that’s the only real argument in favor of illegal downloading, I think: exposure to every possible music style of the past and present, expanding your knowledge of pop culture and, if you’re an artist, re-packaging that in something new. I think it’s great that a kid nowadays can listen to Joy Division and actually like it.
Of course, the negative drawback of this mass online availability of past music is the incessant retromania that has dominated the first decade of the twenty-first century. There was a time when music used to look forward, be futuristic, but that is no longer the case: instead, every past musical niche gets exploited and is re-packaged. The hipster is the ultimate personification of the Internet era: no longer think of something new, but re-use past styles again and again. Nowadays I think only electronic music is still forward-looking, but even there you find more and more retro tunes and vibes. I wonder when something that is totally new will emerge; but before that, I guess first the entire musical and stylistic past must be dug up and re-used again.
That’s something else, however, than missing the time of mainstream pop culture. I’m glad the domination of the musical-industrial complex is over, thank you very much. If that means missing what Toure calls “generational moments”, well, so be it.
I love Massive Music Moments.
I live for those times when an album explodes throughout American society as more than a product — but as a piece of art that speaks to our deepest longings and desires and anxieties. In these Moments, an album becomes so ubiquitous it seems to blast through the windows, to chase you down until it’s impossible to ignore it. But you don’t want to ignore it, because the songs are holding up a mirror and telling you who we are at that moment in history.
These sorts of Moments can’t be denied. They leave an indelible imprint on the collective memory; when we look back at the year or the decade or the generation, there’s no arguing that the album had a huge impact on us. It’s pop music not just as private joy, but as a unifier, giving us something to share and bond over.
Actually, I should say I loved Massive Music Moments. They don’t really happen anymore.
The epic, collective roar — you know, the kind that followed “Thriller,” “Nevermind,” “Purple Rain,” “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,” and other albums so gigantic you don’t even need to name the artist — just doesn’t happen today. Those Moments made you part of a large tribe linked by sounds that spoke to who you are or who you wanted to be. Today there’s no Moments, just moments. They’re smaller, less intense, shorter in duration and shared by fewer people. The Balkanization of pop culture, the overthrow of the monopoly on distribution, and the fracturing of the collective attention into a million pieces has made it impossible for us to coalesce around one album en masse. We no longer live in a monoculture. We can’t even agree to hate the same thing anymore, as we did with disco in the 1970s.
If you’re under 25, you’ve never felt a true Massive Music Moment. Not Lady Gaga. Not Adele. Not even Kanye. As the critic Chuck Klosterman has written, “There’s fewer specific cultural touchstones that every member of a generation shares.” Sure, Gaga’s “The Fame Monster” spawned several hit singles. Adele’s “21″ and Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Watch the Throne” were massively popular. Kanye’s brilliant “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” was beloved and controversial and widely discussed enough to give a glimpse into the way things used to be. But those successes don’t compare to the explosive impact that “Thriller” and “Nevermind” had on American culture — really, will anyone ever commemorate “21″ at 20, the way the anniversary of Nirvana’s album has been memorialized in the last month?
Numbers don’t tell the whole story about how these cultural atomic bombs detonated and dominated pop culture. But at its peak, “Thriller” sold 500,000 copies a week. These days, the No. 1 album on the Billboard charts often sells less than 100,000 copies a week. What we have today are smaller detonations, because pop culture’s ability to unify has been crippled.
I miss Moments. I love being obsessed by a new album at the same time as many other people are. The last two albums that truly grabbed an enormous swath of America by the throat and made us lose our collective mind were “Nevermind” and Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic.” They sprung from something deep in the country’s soul and spoke to a generation’s disaffection and nihilism. They announced new voices on the national stage who would become legends (Kurt Cobain and Snoop Dogg) and introduced the maturation of subgenres that would have tremendous impact (grunge and gangsta rap).
Nowadays my music conversations run like this:
“So what are you listening to?”
“OK, cool. I’ve never heard of them.”
“What are you listening to?”
“Oh. I gotta check them out.”
No connection is made. Pop music has historically been great at creating Moments that brought people together. Now we’re all fans traveling in much smaller tribes, never getting the electric thrill of being in a big, ecstatic stampede. It’s reflected in the difference between the boombox and the iPod. The box was a public device that broadcast your choices to everyone within earshot and shaped the public discourse. The man with the box had to choose something current (or classic) that spoke to what the people wanted to hear. Now the dominant device, the iPod, privatizes the music experience, shutting you and your music off from the world. The iPod also makes it easy to travel with a seemingly infinite collection of songs — which means whatever you recently downloaded has to compete for your attention with everything you’ve ever owned. The iPod tempts you not to connect with the present, but to wallow in sonic comfort food from the past.
Back when MTV played videos, it functioned like a televised boombox. It was the central way for many people to experience music they loved and learn about new artists. Thus MTV directed and funneled the conversation. Now there’s no central authority. Fuse, where I work, plays videos and concerts and introduces people to new artists. But people also watch videos online, where there’s an endless library of everything ever made but no curation, killing its unifying potential.
These days, there are many more points of entry into the culture for a given album or artist. That can be a good thing — MTV, after all, played a limited number of videos in heavy rotation. Now there’s the potential to be exposed to more music. But where there used to be a finite number of gatekeepers, now there’s way too many: anyone with a blog. This is great for the individual listener who’s willing to sift through the chatter to find new bands. But society loses something when pop music does not speak to the entire populace.
Hollywood, too, is struggling to unite us. “Star Wars” and “The Matrix” and “Pulp Fiction” were so big they changed American film — as well as our visual language and Madison Avenue. You didn’t need to actually see the films to feel as if you had consumed them. Their impact was so pervasive, they seemed to bang down your door and announce themselves. The Harry Potter films and “Avatar” stand out for the size of the marketing and ticket buying associated with them. But did they bring large, diverse swaths of America together? Did they speak to something deep in the American soul?
It really seems to speak from a deep-seated insecurity of the author, doesn’t it? Please, go explore music that isn’t spit out over the masses and find a niche you like!